A powerful witness when thousands stand for life

January 17-21, I had the chance to make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to March for Life with our diocese. Thirty young people and eight adult leaders made the pilgrimage together. We spent five days, drove 3,330 miles round-trip, and spent more than 56 hours riding a bus in order to proclaim — and to be living witnesses to our nation and to our world — that we stand for life.

We arrived late Thursday afternoon in time for a quick shower, Mass and dinner. That evening we attended the “Life is Very Good Youth Rally,” sponsored by the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. It was an amazing evening of praise and worship music, confessions, Eucharistic adoration, and an inspirational keynote address by Sr. Miriam James Heidland, a Sister of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. (To hear just how inspirational Sr. Miriam is, go to YouTube, type in her name, and you will have an opportunity to hear for yourself.) Her talk prepared our hearts to March for Life on Friday morning.

As we piled back onto the bus, our driver asked me, “How many people were at the rally?”

I told him, “I wasn’t sure, but it was pretty full.”

He replied, “It is quite a sight to see over 200 charter buses in a parking lot from all over the county. I bet there were over 10,000 people at that rally tonight given the number of buses we counted.”

There were more than 7,500, but it certainly looked and sounded like more than 10,000. It was amazing to see and witness this new generation of young people stepping up to defend a culture of life.

The call to promote a culture of life and not death is central to who we are as disciples of Christ. In Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), St. John Paul II said: “… we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We find ourselves not only faced with but necessarily in the midst of this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”

For me, the March for Life was a surprising experience of prayer, joy and hope. Throughout the march there seemed to be moments of great silence where we pondered the reality of over 58 million infants who have been aborted since the Roe vs Wade decision on January 22, 1973 and yet, at the same time, there were groups carrying signs and banners, praying the rosary, singing and chanting about a culture of life, filling the parade route with sights and sounds of joy and hope — echoes of the “Life is VERY Good” youth rally, the night before. As we marched, I felt there was a cloud of witnesses overshadowing us with the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and Giver of Life, encouraging us to be bold witnesses to a culture of life.

Here are some of the ways others on the trip experienced the March for Life:

“This was my second year attending the March for Life, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that I had to go! What brought me back again to this year’s march was the joy that I had experienced the previous year. The speakers who shared their stories all relating to the overall theme for the march touched me: Love Saves Lives. It was truly empowering to be around hundreds of thousands of people who have the same pro-life beliefs as myself.”
— Mary Kinyon, Cathedral of Our Lady Perpetual Help

“My experience on the March for Life was incredible. I met some amazing people and got to see what can happen when such a great number of great people come together to fight for the end of abortion. It was amazing to be a witness to the love and support that these people showed to others. I am proud to have been a part of this amazing experience and to have the opportunity to march for the lives of those who aren’t given the opportunity to live.”
—Kiah Trainor, Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

“A few years ago, my life was transformed by the birth of our third daughter, Blakely Anne. Diagnosed in pregnancy with numerous health issues, we continued to trust in God and his plan for her life. Although her life was short, it was not without meaning. It meant so much for me to be able to march in solidarity, with thousands of others from across the country, sharing love for the dignity of all human life.
“I was struck especially by the youth in our diocese who said ‘yes’ to participate in a pro-life pilgrimage. During our journey, we had the opportunity to pray, laugh, and share life together. I am filled with hope because we stand together supporting the beauty of all life and God’s unique plan for each one of us.”
— Jenny Scherr, adult leader/youth minister, Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

“When I got to the march, I realized that I wasn’t just standing up for the unborn; I was also standing up for the pregnant women who don’t know how they are going to have the child. They are scared and don’t always have the support they need. So being there showed that there are people out there that care for her well-being, even if we don’t personally know her.”
— Jadyn Zentner, St. Mary, Lemmon

“My March for Life experience was definitely one that I will never forget. I not only marched with some of my best friends, but I made new best friends along the way. My outlook toward life changed in so many ways for the better. About 500,000 people came to Washington, DC, to march for the same cause. Thousands of people held up signs to protest for not only the lives of unborn, but for the lives of every human being. God blessed me that weekend by making me witness the true beauty of all lives, and what our lives can do to impact others.”
— Jordan Miller, Blessed Sacrament, Rapid City

“One of the many things I took away from this trip was that, truly, all life is precious. Whenever abortion is brought up in conversation it’s easy to get wrapped up in ‘saving the babies’ (which is very important), but we often forget about the parents and how they are affected by abortion.

“During the march, people spoke about how abortion affected them. Their testimonies were heart breaking and impactful and really gave you a different view on things. It’s easy to blame and condemn the parent for the choice they made, but this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. We must be kind, compassionate and caring toward all who are affected by such a tragedy because more times than not they are suffering from a choice they made and they must live with that. I wish I could personally thank those who had the courage to stand up for the pro-life movement and share their story because they were so inspirational.”
—Thérèse Wilhelmi, Our Lady of Black Hills, Piedmont

“My experience in D.C. attending the March for Life rallies and the march itself was an incredible experience! We went to save lives but the Lord taught us to open our hearts to him so he can give us the graces to march strongly to save our brothers and sisters!”
— Taylor Murphy, Blessed Sacrament, Rapid City

“Attending the March for Life this year was definitely an unforgettable experience. Marching with hundreds of people from age 70 to even babies, all praying and standing up for something much bigger and so important leaves one feeling content with pure joy from God.”
—Hannah Dillion, St. John the Baptist, Custer

The March for Life is not just another “march.” For 45 years, it has been a powerful witness to the sanctity of life, to the culture of life. It will continue to be that witness so long as a culture of death grips our country. May we continue to pray for the strength to loosen that grip so all may enjoy their right to life.

 

Jesus or Satan: With whom will you stand this year?

Jesus or Satan: With whom will you stand this year?

As we begin this new year, we would be remiss if we did not take the opportunity to reflect and examine our relationships and how they influence the way we live out our lives as followers of Christ.

“Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response” states, “Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ leads naturally to the practice of stewardship. These linked realities, discipleship and stewardship, then make up the fabric of the Christian life in which each day is lived in an intimate personal relationship with the Lord.”

Let us begin 2018 first by praying for a greater desire within our own hearts to truly live a life in union with Christ. Every time we celebrate the Mass, as we prepare to receive the Real Presence of Jesus, we pray, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

At the heart of who we are, there is a real thirst and hunger to open wide the door of our hearts and have our Lord Jesus Christ enter and completely heal us. Yet, at the same time, we struggle to do so because of temptation and the pattern of sin that continues to plague our lives leaving us empty, unfilled and unhappy.

This struggle is actually a spiritual battle that is being waged within each us, whether we want to believe it or not. At the center of this spiritual battle is the battle for our very souls.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, a former soldier, offers a powerful reflection of this reality in his Spiritual Exercises. In his “Meditation of the Two Standards,” he compares our spiritual lives with that of a soldier who must decide which standard (flag) to stand with, to be loyal to, to fight for.

The two standards are that of Jesus and of Satan. Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Lk 11:23). He invites us to place ourselves firmly under his standard.

Both because of the temptations of the Evil One and our own fallen nature, we have a tendency within ourselves to get stuck somewhere in between Christ and the world (Satan, our own ideas and plans and all that is not of God), wanting to have both. In the end, this prevents us from truly having to make a decision to follow Jesus, to give testimony and witness to his life within us.

The Greek word for testimony is martyria, meaning martyr, implying that at the heart of testimony there is not only a personal and first-hand knowledge of Jesus, but also a willingness on our part to risk it all for Christ — to be true light to the world.

We hear these challenging and uncomfortable words in the Book of Revelation: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, will I spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15). This is the indecision that leaves us in the gap between standing under the flag of Jesus and coming under the flag of the world.

The question we are called to ponder and wrestle with in our lives is, “Who are you with? Team Jesus or Team Satan? Whose flag are you waving? Are you firmly in one camp or the other, or are you wavering somewhere between the two?”

Knowing the reality of living under these two standards is helpful in answering these questions. Under the standard of Jesus, we are ALWAYS drawn to the Advocate, the Good Father, the perfecter of human nature. We experience unity.

Where is the unity in your heart today? In John 17, Jesus calls us to oneness of heart: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23).

On the flip side, the evil one always brings division and darkness. When we are tempted to keep hidden our fears, doubts, anger and sorrows and when our hearts are divided and restless, we are not standing under Jesus’ standard.

Likewise, when we come under the standard of Jesus we are all about courage and communion. However, when we follow the standard of Satan we are filled with inadequacies and have the tendency to isolate ourselves from family, friends and one another.

When we come under the standard of Jesus, we are filled with humility, happiness and hope. We experience a deep sense of joy being held by God the Father who loves, delights and rejoices in us. When we fall into the trap of coming under the flag of Satan, we are filled with disappointment, discouragement, doubt and despair. Despair is a dangerous place in which to be because we lose our sense of direction completely, of being called by God, who does indeed have a mission and purpose for our lives.

Lastly, when we come under the standard of Jesus, we experience belief and forgiveness rather than unbelief and unforgiveness, which are the marks of Satan’s standard. The enemy wants to keep hidden our fears, doubts, angers and sorrows. The enemy wants us to keep these to ourselves, rather than relating and bringing them to the heart of Jesus — the way, the truth and the life.

It is in our fears, doubts, angers and sorrows that the enemy plays around with us and begins to bind us, taking us down dead-end streets that only lead to emptiness, darkness and sadness within us. But when we are able to relate our fears, doubts, angers and sorrows to Christ, bringing them out of darkness and into the Light, he leads us to freedom, joy and happiness.

In this New Year, may you take some time to examine the movements your heart experiences and ponder more deeply what that says about who you stand with and which flag you are waving.

 

For Advent, focus on reconciliation

At the end of October, Jesuit Father Jim Kubicki, president of St. Francis Mission, led the chancery staff retreat. In the talks he shared with us, he focused on the diocesan vision statement: Reconcile — Make Disciples — Live the Mission. These six words are the foundation stones, the building blocks that will help to move our diocese in a new direction, helping us to reorient our lives to be reconciling disciples.

Father Kubicki said “the heart of the Gospel is reconciliation itself.” In 2 Corinthians 5:18, we hear that Christ was sent by the Father to reconcile us to him, and so now Christ gives us the ministry of reconciliation.

We are called to be a reconciling people, to not only extend forgiveness to one another, but also to receive forgiveness from others and to learn to forgive ourselves in and through Christ.

In 2006, speaking in Australia, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Commitment to truth opens the way to lasting reconciliation through the healing process of asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness — two indispensable elements for peace.”

In our Pastoral Priority Plan, we hear this: “As God has reconciled us through Jesus Christ, so we will promote forgiveness and healing within families; within and between communities; among racial groups; with the Church. We will invite others to experience the good news of God’s love through encounter with Jesus Christ.”

To help us live out this vision of reconciliation in our parishes and diocese, we are called as parish communities to identify areas where reconciliation and unity are strong and areas where reconciliation is needed. Also, each parish or group of parishes were asked to submit to Bishop Gruss a plan which engages and promotes reconciliation and includes an implementation process that will help us live intentionally in the heart of the Gospel as Jesus did.

In October, the priests of our diocese were on retreat at Terra Sancta. Our director was Jesuit Father John Horn. He is the co-founder of the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, and currently serves as professor of spiritual theology and spiritual director at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Florida.

Father Horn, like Father Kubicki, focused the priest retreat on the theme of reconciliation. One of the things Father Horn shared with us was a new guide for confession and receiving God’s mercy. As we approach Advent, we will have a number of opportunities in our parishes to ask, to receive, to grant forgiveness in and through Christ and to be those reconciling disciples that we hear about in Second Corinthians.

This new reconciliation guide bases our examination of conscience on the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, anger and sloth.  Father Horn reminded us that these sins always lead us to isolation from Christ and one another. Living in isolation then leads to “bad fruit” — immorality, impurity … idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, fractions, occasions of envy … and the like” (Gal 5:19-21).

The guide suggests possible penances that focus on heavenly virtues which lead us out of isolation and into communion with Christ: humility/loving obedience, kindness/admiration, charity/generosity, temperament/self-control, chastity/purity, patience/forgiveness and diligence/zeal.

When we are living in communion with Christ, the good “fruit of the Spirit” is born in our midst, namely “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 4:22-23).

This Advent could be a good time to use this new guide for penitents and priests, titled “Confession and Receiving God’s Mercy.” It would be a good addition to your parish’s reconciliation plan and one more resource for helping to fulfill the Diocesan Pastoral Plan.

This guide is put out by the Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation at St. Paul Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. I have ordered 5,000 of these guides. I know a number of parishes have already ordered them as well through the Office of Stewardship and Vocations, but if you or your parishes are interested, but have not already ordered some, please let me know and I would be happy to get them out to you.

I wanted to leave you with the Act of Contrition contained in this new guide. It speaks beautifully of this desire to live a life focused on reconciliation and mercy.

An Act of Contrition

Lord Jesus, to know You is eternal life. I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. I love You and I place my trust in You.

I am sorry for all my sins and for withholding myself in any way from you. Please forgive me and heal any pain I have caused others. I forgive anyone who has hurt me, and I ask You to bless them. In Your name, Jesus, I renounce anything in my life that is not of You that I have welcomed into my mind or heart. Wash me in mercy and fill me with Your Precious Blood and the Holy Spirit.

Father, of all my need for love and affection is found in Your embrace. May I never leave my home in Your heart again. By Your grace, I resolve to remain in Your shelter and abide in Your shade, where You restore to me the joy of Your salvation (Ps. 91, Ps.51). Amen.